Female fertility: Why lifestyle choices count

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Female fertility: Why lifestyle choices count

If you're hoping to get pregnant now or in the future, you may wonder about your fertility and whether you can improve it. Some factors may be beyond your control — such as medical issues that affect female fertility — but that isn't the end of the story. Your lifestyle choices can affect your fertility, too. Find out what steps you can take to promote and protect your fertility.

What is female fertility?

Female fertility is a woman's ability to conceive a biological child. You and your partner may question your ability to have a baby or your fertility if you've been trying to get pregnant with frequent, unprotected sex for at least one year with no success.

What causes female fertility problems?

Various medical issues can contribute to female fertility problems, including:

  • Ovulation disorders
  • Damaged fallopian tubes
  • Endometriosis — when the endometrium, which normally lines the uterus, grows in other places as well
  • Uterine problems

Age also plays a role in fertility. Delaying pregnancy can decrease the likelihood that you'll be able to conceive. As you reach your 30s, your eggs may decline in quality and you may ovulate less frequently, even if you're still having regular periods. An older woman's eggs also aren't fertilized as easily as a younger woman's eggs.

What can I do to promote female fertility?

Healthy lifestyle choices can help you promote fertility. For example:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or significantly underweight may affect production of the hormone estrogen and inhibit normal ovulation. Maintaining a healthy weight may increase the frequency of ovulation and likelihood of pregnancy.
  • Prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Sexually transmitted infections — such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — can damage the fallopian tubes. Avoid having unprotected sex with multiple partners, which increases your chances of contracting an STI that may cause fertility problems.
  • Schedule regular checkups. Regular visits to your health care provider can help you detect and treat health problems that may threaten your fertility.

What should I avoid to protect female fertility?

To protect your fertility, avoid:

  • Smoking. Besides damaging your cervix and fallopian tubes, heavy smoking ages your ovaries and depletes your eggs prematurely. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes also interfere with estrogen production and cause eggs to be more prone to genetic abnormalities. If you smoke, ask your health care provider to help you quit.
  • Alcohol. Heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk of ovulation disorders — and some research has shown that even light drinking may reduce the likelihood of conceiving. If you'd like to get pregnant, it's best to avoid alcohol completely.
  • Excessive caffeine. Too much caffeine may increase estrogen production, decrease estrogen metabolism, and contribute to fallopian tube damage and endometriosis. To protect your fertility, limit the amount of caffeine in your diet to no more than the equivalent of six cups of coffee a day (900 milligrams of caffeine). This includes the caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate, soda and energy drinks.
  • Stress. Severe stress can inhibit ovulation, and even mild stress can affect your fertility. Although more research is needed to show the impact stress can have on female fertility, researchers recommend minimizing stress and practicing healthy coping methods when trying to conceive.
  • Excessive vigorous physical activity. Too much intense aerobic activity can harm female fertility by reducing production of the hormone progesterone and inhibiting ovulation. If you have a healthy weight and you're thinking of becoming pregnant soon, consider limiting your aerobic exercise to no more than seven hours a week. If you're overweight, ask your health care provider how much aerobic activity is OK.
  • Exposure to toxins. Exposure to various chemicals or pollutants can harm your fertility. Agricultural workers and those involved in the production of oral contraceptives may be at risk of menstrual disorders. In addition, dental assistants exposed to high levels of nitrous oxides, workers exposed to elevated levels of organic solvents — such as dry cleaning chemicals — and industrial workers exposed to drugs or chemicals during the manufacturing process may be at risk of reduced fertility. Share any concerns you may have about exposure to toxins with your health care provider.

What's the bottom line?

If you're thinking about becoming pregnant and you're concerned about the impact of your lifestyle choices on your fertility, consult your health care provider. He or she may be able to help you improve your fertility and your chances of conceiving without fertility treatment.

Last Updated: 2010-03-09
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